Black man wrongfully arrested because of incorrect facial recognition

Robert Williams spent nearly 30 hours in a detention center.

June 25, 2020, 2:01 PM

A Black man was wrongfully arrested and held in a detention center for nearly 30 hours in Michigan after facial recognition technology incorrectly identified him as a suspect in a shoplifting case, according to the man, his attorney and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Robert Williams received a call at work from the Detroit Police Department on Jan. 9 stating that he had to report to the station for arrest, according to a complaint filed Wednesday against police by Phil Mayor, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Fund of Michigan.

Williams was not told why and he assumed it was a prank call, the complaints stated.

Yet when he returned home, officers were waiting for him outside and arrested Williams on his front lawn in front of his wife, Melissa, and two young daughters.

Police believed he was the suspect in a shoplifting case at a Shinola watch store in Detroit, according to the complaint.

However, Williams was not the suspect.

Robert Williams was wrongfully arrested and held in police custody after he was incorrectly identified by a facial recognition tool as a suspect.

After being held overnight in a cell and later interrogated, "it became clear that his arrest was based on an erroneous facial recognition identification," according to the complaint.

Williams said at one point they showed him two photos of the suspect and he told the officers that was not him.

"I was like, 'I hope y'all don't think all black people look alike,'" Williams said in a video published by the ACLU, recounting his experience.

The investigation officer -- allegedly looking "confused" -- told Williams that "the computer must have gotten it wrong," according to the complaint.

Even so, Williams was not immediately released.

He remained held in the detention center until he was arraigned in the afternoon, given a personal bond and eventually released at night, according to the complaint. Robert's fingerprints, DNA sample, and mugshot were put on file, the complaint stated.

A Wayne County prosecutor eventually announced that charges against Williams were dropped without prejudice, meaning prosecutors could pursue the case again.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy apologized for her office taking up the case. She also said that she has expressed reservations to Detroit police about face-recognition technology because of how "it relates to people of color."

"This case should not have been issued based on the DPD investigation, and for that we apologize," she Worthy said. "Thankfully, it was dismissed on our office's own motion. This does not in any way make up for the hours that Mr. Williams spent in jail."

Detroit police did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment. However, a spokeswoman for the department, Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood, told the New York Times, which first reported the story, that police "accepted the prosecutor's decision to dismiss the case."

The complaint also states that police showed six photographs, including Williams' drivers' license photo, to a Shinola security guard. However, that guard had not witnessed the incident in person and instead had just watched the security footage, according to the complaint.

Robert Williams was wrongfully arrested and held in police custody after he was incorrectly identified by a facial recognition tool as a suspect.

The guard identified Williams and an arrest warrant was issued.

Kirkwood also told the Times that the department "does not make arrests based solely on facial recognition. The investigator reviewed video, interviewed witnesses, conducted a photo lineup."

Williams' case is believed to be the first known case of someone being wrongfully arrested in the United States because of facial recognition technology.

However, it is not the first instance that concerns have been raised.

Advocates against the technology have long called for a ban.

One federal study found that a majority of the software exhibits a racial bias.

The study, published in December 2019, from the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) looked at 189 software algorithms from 99 developers, which encompasses a majority of the industry.

The group found higher rates of false-positives for Asian and African American faces compared to images of Caucasian faces for "one-to-one" matching, which confirms a photo matches a different photo of the same person in a database, according to an agency statement.

Since Williams' arrest, the ACLU is calling on lawmakers nationwide to stop law enforcement's use of the facial recognition technology.

"[They're] just pulling pictures from everywhere, matching you up anywhere. From social media and if you're in the background of a picture and if it's a clear picture, they can use that," Williams said. "And obviously it doesn't work."